Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987)

I think most would say that Farrah Fawcett gave two very good performances: The Burning Bed and Small Sacrifices.  I’ll give her one of those, but I actually think her best performance is here in “Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story,” a sudser that is a gift to any actress because Barbara Hutton’s life had everything dramatic imaginable.  There’s so much to play here!  In the three miniseries about some of the 20th Century’s wealthiest women, this one is right in the middle.  “Little Gloria, Happy At Last,” is sublime, even if it’s only about Gloria Vanderbilt as a young child.  “Too Rich” with Lauren Bacall as Doris Duke is a lot tougher to get through than the others.  This one is right in the middle with Farrah ideally cast as tragic oft-married Barbara Hutton.

Let’s go back to 1917, where F.W. Woolworth (Burl Ives) is opening his 150th store.  He’s giving a speech at the opening, giving Burl Ives a cheesy speech into which to sink his considerably over-ripe chops and then gives an even harsher one to his daughter, who has married Franklyn Hutton (brother of E.F.), all of this witnessed by five-year-old Barbara, his granddaughter.  Old F.W.’s speech about the lout Franklyn reminds his daughter all super rich people need to start life out on a tragic foot (or at least the rich who make it to TV, and let’s face it, Barbara’s life was TV-ready the whole time it was happening), so she kills herself so Barbara can have that drama.  Yup, less than five minutes after the credits, Mom is dead.  But not pretty on the bed with her hands clasped, slumped in a couch in a fluffy nightgown. 

Franklyn Hutton (Kevin McCarthy) isn’t much of a father either, giving Barbara the old “Mommy is in heaven” speech and then heaping presents on her instead of his love.  Absentee parentism, another theme of these pieces.  Franklyn, seemingly on one glass of wine, gets raging drunk and goes into dinner with the Woolworth family, where old F.W. is anything but pleased and the rest of the family pecks at hime.  His speech about anyone being able to parent a child is heard by Barbara, setting up a complex that will haunt Barbara for the rest of her life (both a good Psychiatrist and anyone who watches these types of movies will tell you that). 

Barbara is packed off to live with her grandparents, though Mrs. Woolworth doesn’t have any lines and F.W. dies after a frightening scene explaining the scary organ he plays in the middle of the night to Barbara.  Franklyn still can’t be bothered to play father, but laughs to remind everyone that F.W. died before making a will leaving everything to charity, so once Granny dies, Barbara gets a massive fortune.  The governess notes that Franklyn left without saying goodbye to Barbara (now Fairuza Balk, who is supposed to be 12 even though it’s only two years later in the story–Barbara was born in 1912).  Barbara has no friends, so the servants wrangle some up, but they are rather bitchy, setting up a second theme, that of Barbara giving away anything she has to people who pay her attention so they will like her.  The girls traipse out with everything but a chotchke from her mother (Barbara won’t part with it, so the nastiest little girl in TV history whines, “then what can I take?”). 

Granny Woolworth kicks and Barbara gets a house and a stepmother at the same time, only dad and stepmom live next door, leaving Barbara all alone in her house with only servants.  The poor thing sits at her window at New Year’s watching a hearty party next door.  Cousin Jimmy Donahue, playing the gay best friend role (yes, even as a child), pops by to note how “different” they are from everyone else.  They promise always to stay together. 

And finally Farrah takes over as Barbara, with eternal sidekick Bruce Davison as Jimmy.  She’s at her own coming out party where Franklyn name drops, but Barbara is unimpressed.  She still has no friends except Jimmy, as everyone is forced to be there.  Aunt Marjorie Merriweather Post (Anne Francis) is kind to her, but all of the girls, now grown up, are as spiteful as possible.  But, they introduce her to Prince Mdvani (Nicholas Clay), an impossibly handsome fellow.  “If a guy’s going to marry awful rich, he better be very in love,” a drunk guy notes, which Barbara overhears, hammering in our theme again.  “I feel like I’ve been entered at the Westminster Kennel show,” Barbara glowers, while men drool after her money.

Barbara is packed off to London to meet the royal family to get her away from her lover, whom drunk Franklyn thinks is a drunk who wants to marry for money (no irony there, eh?).  She meets all the royals, but things finally get going when Barbara is invited to France by Elsa Maxwell (played as a bull dyke by Miriam Margoyles).  It’s there she again meets Prince Mdvani.  He says all the right things to her, that “people will always be fascinated by you,” but lays on the charm as only an impoverished Prince from Georgia (not the state) can.  Most importantly, he pretends to be into Barbara for Barbara herself.  Barbara also meets Pauline de la Rochelle (Stephane Audan), who is sympathetic to her plight.  Moments later, Barbara hears the latest song rage, “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five and Ten Cent Store)” and is horrified.  “Doris Duke has more money than me,” she bleats, begging people not to talk about her money.  Pot and kettle? 

Prince Mdvani, still making it all about Barbara, gets his woman into bed in an overly under-lit scene where he starts at her toes and works works up, only to be interrupted by a gaggle of “friends,” one of whom purposely brought everyone to the cabana to show them together. 

It’s now 1931 and Franklyn arrives in London (Barbara stays at The Dorchester, where Liz and Dick would stay years later) to talk Barbara out of playing around with Prince Mdvani, who is, oh, I didn’t mention this, married.  Franklyn offers $500K to Prince Mdvani to go away, and the Prince and his sister insist it’s all about love.  The sister would be happy to take $1 million, $500K apiece, and the Prince informs Franklyn he’s getting a divorce.  The sister gets the wife to divorce Prince Mdvani so they can get to Barbara, but Barbara and her loyal friend Jean (Zoe Wanamaker) are onto the scheme, but Barbara wants Prince Mdvani to work for it and makes him chase her around the world.  He finds her in Bali, where they FINALLY get to finish that sex scene started earlier.  They force Franklyn to announce their engagement and Prince Mdvani fires off a cable to his sister.  “I’ve won the prize.” 

The Prince and Franklyn make a business deal before the marriage, making sure we understand he’s doing this for the money.  Barbara is upset, still thinking the Prince loves her as she loves him, but dad tells her the blunt truth.  Farrah gets her first hot-tempered scene and she handles it well.  She goes through with the marriage anyway.  On their wedding night, Barbara coos about how much she loves his body and he tells her she’s too fat.  She still buys him a boat, a small one, dependable Pauline clucking her disapproval.  “He’s a baby really, a big baby,” Barbara says, as if that’s a good trait in a new husband. 

As her bastard wastrel husband spends her money and squires around other women, we get a bizarre montage of Barbara’s weight loss regime, which is essentially Farrah in a series of increasingly less padded outfits.  With Barbara about to take control of her own fortune the way she has her figure, suddenly the Prince wants her again.  After a jewel buying spree, Barbara loses her temper on the Prince, but he manipulates the conversation to his advantage, as usual.  Barbara tosses the Prince’s clothing into the Venice canals, yelling, “you forgot your marriage!”

Barbara comes into her own money and spends it so fully that we have to suffer through a ridiculous scene where Barbara and the Prince are attached at the theater by the Depression-era poor. 

Barbara meets Count Reventlow (making sure to knock down the Prince’s empty title), a Danish prince who enchants Barbara, and Jimmy too.  Prince Mdvani is less excited.  The Count helps Barbara forget the increasingly horrid behavior of the Prince, who is clearly on his way out.  Since the movie is about Barbara, we have to make sure all non-Barbara characters who fell out of her favor are painted in the worst light, so Prince Mdvani gets a scene of such bad behavior that they actually have him fallen on the floor laughing like a true movie villain. 

Franklyn goes to her side and is not helpful in telling her to curb her cursing.  “Watch your language!  What’s your language!  Why can’t you just hold me?” Barbara howls.  It’s hard not to laugh at dialogue like that.  That scene has to be topped by one with the Prince.  “You never really loved me, did you?” she asks Mdvani, who doesn’t deny he and his sister wanted the money.

Ta-ta Prince Mdvani, hello Count Reventlow, who seems far more down-to-earth than the Prince.  “We live in castle, but it’s not a fairy-tale castle, just a big family home,” he says.  Is that supposed to sound unpretentious or are we supposed to take that seriously?  The Count promises to protect Barbara, who needs that attention, as we’ve known since Mom left her (I will not allow anyone to forget out themes–if the movie isn’t subtle, I don’t have to be!). 

Hold on for the hoot scene where Reventlow tells her he is excited by being in control of her and then screws her in a horse stable.  And then on a train.  Barbara doesn’t seem to see the warning signs here.

In the middle of her time with Reventlow, Prince Mdvani is killed.  Just thought you would want to know what happened to her first ex.  The movie cares enough to tell us.

Barbara gets pregnant by Reventlow, to the dismay of Jean and Jimmy, who seem to know she’s not exactly a candidate for motherhood.  Barbara tells Reventlow to “come here” in a sweet moment, but he tells her once again she can never give orders (orders?) and then has his way with her again.  Barbara, still anorexic from her time with the Prince, neglects to eat, much to the Count’s dismay and goes into premature labor. 

Reventlow won’t let Jimmy or “his friends” hold little Lance, because, well, you know.  “I may be a queen, but I earned my title,” Jimmy snaps, delivering the movie’s best line and waking it momentarily from the stupor of dull husbands into which it’s fallen. 

It’s the 1930s, so any rich dame with a kid gets kidnapping threats and Barbara buys a house outside of London, which Reventlow fixes up for about $5 million.  Barbara carps at the money, but he gives her the “I’m in charge” speech again. 

We meet Baron Von Cramm (Sascha Hehn), a famous tennis player and Barbara is smitten (I hate to ruin any surprises, but don’t get too attached to him yet because there are three husbands after Reventlow before she marries him).  Reventlow is jealous, but there are bigger problems.  There is a strike against Woolworth’s and Reventlow tosses away a cable asking for help.  Barbara is very concerned about the poor workers (as if) and she is even more upset that he’s still controlling her.  He gets physically abusive.  Yet Barbara doesn’t want to divorce him because she wants her son to grow up with two parents living with him, unike the zero she had.  Reventlow, supposedly to save her money, wants her to renounce her US citizenship.  But, Franklyn’s lawyer pipes in that all of the money will technically become Reventlow’s, so another hubby contract has to be signed.  He agrees, so Barbara renounces her citizenship, barely holding back tears and wearing make-up to make her look as haggard and upset as possible, though the fur and jewels must be helping her feel better.  All of this pisses off the strikers at Woolworth’s even more.  One of the four (we’re not spending money on extras when we have jewels and husbands to pay for) throws a trash can through a Woolworth’s window. 

Pauline convinces Barbara to buy some fabulously expensive jewels to help her feel better.  Just then, dead Prince Mdvani’s sister shows up, poor and sickly.  Cue an explosion from Reventlow, who see the sister holding Lance and forbids it ever again because she’s a morphine addict.  He wants all “undesirables” out of  her life.  Sound Nazi-like?  It should, because the Nazis are on the move and Von Cramm is not a Nazi sympathizer. 

Even worse, Reventlow takes her to a sex club, where she is horrified and when they get home, he rapes her because she behaved so poorly.  To add insult to literal injury, Reventlow takes Lance as he dashes from their house.

The divorce proceedings in 1937 are a circus in the British courts.  Reventlow accuses Barbara of having affairs, but can’t prove it and Barbara gets to provide evidence of his cruelty.  The trial is having an effect on Lance, who has to sleep in an oxygen tent.  Oh, and World War II is on its way and Barbara’s friends urge her to leave, to ask for Joe Kennedy for help, but Barbara has less than fond memories of that womanizer.  Unfortunately, Barbara is no longer an American citizen, so going back to the US will not be easy.  Want another level of misery?  Von Cramm is arrested in Germany on a charge of homosexuality.  Want another level?  Loyal Pauline gives Barbara some pills to help calm her nerves.  You know that that leads to in a TV miniseries…addiction!  Oh, yes, always. 

As World War II advances, Barbara and Lance go to Los Angeles and the notorious Countess Difrasso, who raises money for the war effort.  Barbara matches all money raised, but the tit-for-tat is that the Countess can help get Von Cramm out of Germany. 

Since it’s LA, it’s time to meet husband #3, and the most famous of them all, Cary Grant (James Read, looking fantastic and doing a dead-on impersonation), the only one who didn’t marry her for her money.  The hook here for Barbara is that Cary is every bit as famous as her, so they are sympatico.  On top of that, Cary seems to adore Lance from the beginning (taking him in his arms so he can dance with Cary and Barbara).  However, this means for the oft-bedraggled viewer that Barbara as a character is given some depth and introspection.  Depth isn’t a strong suit of this type of fluff.  It gives Farrah a chance to stretch a little, but making Cary Grant the indoor anti-fame whore type isn’t as interesting as scandalous Mdvani or beastly Reventlow.

Barbara is fighting for Von Cramm’s release (spied on by the Americans since the money to do it is going through Axis channels) and there is yet MORE bad news: Franklyn is dying.  When Franklyn says he loves her, Barbara whines, “don’t say that now.  I needed to hear it then!”  This launches her into a tantrum about the way he’s treated her as Kevin McCarthy gets to play one hell of a deathbed scene, with tears, recriminations and confessions, just the stuff of Emmy nominations…I mean, good television.  Note that as she holds his hand for the last time, Barbara is wearing a diamond that would make Elizabeth Taylor jealous.  She immediately tells her son she loves him, so as not to be the same parent her father was. 

Though Cary is so sympathetic when Barbara finds out she can’t have children, he adores Lance and he ignores her increasing pill addiction, out of nowhere, they have a fight.  He hates being “Cary Grant” to her friends and she thinks he spends too much time without her.  “I hate Cary Grant!” she bellows as he storms out.  “I love Cary Grant,” she whispers to herself when he leaves.  But folks, that ain’t the end of it.  The studio wanted to put Barbara in a Cary Grant movie and he refused.  “I’ll buy the studio and fire you,” she shouts, but it ends up in laughter (I was already laughing, because Barbara was discussing throwing her maid a party where all the guests come as maids and all the maids as her friends and her maid can wear her jewels).

Barbara is given that moment of levity with Cary, but life is not rosy.  Lance goes to visit his father and Mrs. His Father finds his name stitched in his clothing as “Lance Grant” and coded letters to Barbara.  Just when you thought screeching Reventlow was out of the picture, he returns to create more drama.  Reventlow is so angry, he wants to take Lance somewhere Barbara can never see him.  And, if you are the type who cares about history, World War II ends. 

So does marriage to Cary, as they both realize it hasn’t been working.  Barbara gets Lance away from Reventlow and parks him in boarding school in Tucson, but on the way, they stop at a drive-thru where waitress on roller skates seeing Barbara crash into each other.  This is the reason why Lance can’t stay with Barbara, who needs to keep on the move.  “Look what just happened.  All I have to do is walk down the street and someone ends up in the hospital,” she explains to Lance.  With a straight face.  As if ego like that is healthy.  Do we know a rich TV or movie character with a child who doesn’t get tossed into boarding school, putting her life ahead of the kid’s?  Of course not!”  Have we fogotten about poor Ann Grenville’s kid?  He jumped out the window due to absentee partenting. 

Babsy licks her wounds in Europe, going to fancy parties wearing tiaras, helping prop Jimmy up (he was booted from the army with a dishonorable discharge) and giving jewelry to Pauline.  Best of all, she is reunited with Von Cramm.  He seems to be the love of her life, but he has to go back to Germany the next day, so he’s put on ice again after they spend a night together. 

One place we haven’t been is Tangier, so why not go?  Barbara can spend a fortune there and remain fairly anonymous.  She buys a house, outbidding Franco for it, and her possessions make their way via donkey and men with hats around a set with extras that looks like Mexico more than North Africa. Tangier also gives Bruce Davison a chance to get plastered and ride a camel.  Barbara literally dresses like royalty and even gets Lance in on the act when he visits.  It is excessive, but she seems happy.

But we can’t have happiness for our Barbara, can we?  Cue Prince Igor Trubestkoy (Leigh Lawson), another impossible stunning man who asks her what it’s like to have everything as a second sentence introducing himself.  Rather than run from him, Barbara is drawn.  Well, he does have a title, he’s good looking and he pays her dutiful attention.  We’re back to our theme!  “I don’t want to be dominated and I’m terrified of being alone,” Barbara says when he proposes perhaps maybe they should think of kind of falling in love.  That line sums up the whole movie, but there’s still over an hour to go.

We should worry that when Barbara and Igor, in bed during the above scene, finish it, Barbara goes down on Igor and he wears a look of supreme surprise.

Lance is pissed at Barbara because she won’t break the agreement with Reventlow and keep him permanently.  “Every time we part, something leaves me,” Barbara sighs as angry Lance goes back to his father and Igor doesn’t even try to comfort her.  He then becomes husband #4, but things immediately turn sour when he objects to her drugs, her anorexia, her smoking (she’s a richer Judy Garland, I guess).  In Igor’s defense, Barbara has turned into a raving bitch.  He’s trying to help and she snaps at him that he’s only unhappy because she’s not taking care of him (“I always take care of my husbands,” she says with a nasty tone and dismisses him).  She even admits to Lance that she doesn’t love Igor, but Lance is soooooo over his mother and her nonsense.  He tells her to stop calling!

Seven years pass and we find Barbara and Jimmy frail and addicted to an assortment of pills and drink that are all over the place.  Igor has been discarded and they chat of soon-to-be husband #5, and my personal favorite, Porfirio Rubirosa (he of pepper mill fame).  Lance is now an adult with a girlfriend to whom he wants to introduce Mummy.  Barbara is so bad off from the drugs, the booze and the lack of eating that she can’t even apply her make-up and stumbles around her house in a haze.  It’s a sure bet the meeting with Lance’s girl will not go well.  In fact, Lance and the girl bolt as soon as they walk in because Barbara is too drunk to even stand up.

Then comes her suicide attempt, though it’s treated as only a blip.  Winchell then tells us the entire history of her marriage to Rubirosa in six seconds.  It only lasted that many weeks, or $66,000 a day considering what she spent on him.  Lance turns 21 and there is a huge black tie affair, where even Cary Grant and Uncle Jimmy show up, but not Barbara.  “Do you think your next father is here today?” Jimmy snarls after Lance introduces him to his fiance Jill St. John (Debbie Barker). 

Lance has another surprise: he’s now a race car driver.  Friends, I don’t want to alarm you, but no one in a miniseries becomes a race car driver without, well, you know (although this “you know” will have a twist).  Lance has a terrible accident during one race where there is a wildly bad moment of continuity.  Every time they show the crowd, it’s very obviously stock footage of racing fans from the 80s, rather than the 50s.  Barbara is so freaked out that she tries offering Jill money to get Lance to stop, but Jill refuses, saying, “if I can’t him to stop for love, I certainly won’t do it for money.”  We have to be nice to the character of Jill as she alone among the major characters was still alive when this movie aired (Prince Igor was still alive, but somehow I doubt he had any sway).

Barbara finally marries Baron Von Cramm, husband #6, the man she’s always wanted, but there’s a hitch.  She sees it firsthand when she bursts into the bedroom one day and finds him with another man.  Yeah, that hitch.  I hate to side with the Nazis, but they did label him a homosexual and they were right.  If it’s any consolation, he has excellent taste, because the boy in the bed is hot!  Barbara claims to have known all along, but didn’t want to know about it.  Barbara does depression in an interesting way, buying gifts for her friends, a house for the nanny, a villa for Pauline, pearls for Jean, who turns them down because she is a TRUE friend and wants nothing.  With Jean in the room, Barbara hits on Jean’s husband, and when they try to talk sense into her, she kicks them to the curb.  This is the saddest break-up in the whole movie because Barbara only does it to spare them the agony of watching her downward spiral and they genuinely love her. 

In Venice, Countess Barbara, haggard and ridiculous, gives a bracelet to a hanger-on who admires it, but a good-looking stranger, James Douglas (Tony Peck) intervenes, gets her back the bracelet and then goes to bed with her.  Pillow talk reveals that he has a trust fund too.  James is different, because he not only returns all her gifts, but he also tells her the truth about her drinking, drugging and spending.  This monologue he delivers in a multi-colored satin dressing gown, so it’s hard to take him seriously.  She begs James to stay with her, but he says he’ll do it only without her friends, even Pauline.  Pauline had lavishly spent Barbara’s money, so she should have been tossed years ago, but now we’re finally rid of her.

The new couple goes off to Mexico, where she has a Japanese-style mansion, and she summons Lance, who is a pissy little brat.  He takes an immediately dislike to young James.  He also lays it all on the line for his mother, calling her a “drunken slut.”  “Face it, you never wanted a child,” he says, before reminding her that her father didn’t want her and now her son doesn’t either.   “You son of a bitch,” James pipes in.  “That’s right, I’m a real son of a bitch.  Good luck, maybe she’ll raise you better than me,” Lance carps as he storms out.  She decides to to back to Tangier, where she can revel in her riches and ignore the rest of the world. 

On the plane over, Farrah gets another showy scene where she’s so drunk and hopped up that she has a nervous breakdown in the lavatory, calling out for her nanny and thinking James is Reventlow.  She even tries to open the hatch.  Things are not going well for our heroine (but great for Farrah). 

At a party in Tangier, Barbara doesn’t make an appearance and the guests won’t leave.  “Then pay them to go!” she roars at James, who is still trying to save her.  Barbara pushes him away too, as she does all positive influences (Pauline is back with the rest of the leeches).  James has no choice but to leave.  It was nice knowing him, but watching Barbara crash is more fun, so stick-in-the-mud sober James wasn’t going to be around long. 

Meet Raymond Doan (Neville Jason) whose brother decides “they” will marry Barbara for her money and plot like greedy children.  Their conversation is overheard by a friend, so Pauline and Barbara’s boyfriend tell her to watch out, but she takes Raymond’s side, getting rid of both of them.  Pauline gets a teary “I’ve been a loyal friend” scene, but frankly, she won’t be missed.  Barbara quickly marries Raymond, much to the dismay of Cousin Jimmy and Graham, her longtime lawyer (David Ackroyd). 

Jimmy has a teary goodbye scene with Barbara, which, by the television playbook should mean he will die in the next scene, but it’s Lance who bites it in a plane crash as Barbara is having a nightmare about him.  She senses the moment of death.  Okay, that’s a bit much, even for TV dramatics.

It’s 1977 now and Graham has had to sell off Barbara’s assets because she has no money.  Barbara is basically bedridden, her skin see-through, looking far older than her 60some years.  She battles Graham, accusing him of stealing her homes, her jewels and her money.  She has nothing left, so Graham rips the pearl necklace off her neck to raise some cash.  She tells him she thinks he’s “the biggest con artist” she’s ever met and dispenses with him too. 

The finale has Barbara aged beyond recognition, even down to her wrinkled hands, unable to get out of bed and looking 150 years old.  She puts on the finery she has left and accepts a visit from Cary Grant, the only man who didn’t use her for her money.  Farrah gets her last chance to go for the gold with her deathbed speech, looking horrendously ugly and regretting her life.  The narrator tells us Barbara died in 1979, worth less than $3500. 

Geez, by the time Barbara divorces Cary Grant, not one good thing happens to her and I’m not sure if “Poor Little Rich Girl” is really a glossy miniseries anymore or a high-budget morality tale.  I still go with the former, because if the lesson is don’t be like Barbara Hutton, none of us have to worry.  There are too few people in the world who could afford that lifestyle, and they probably don’t watch miniseries anyway. 

Seven husbands, umpteen lovers, bad friends, a dead son, a dead mother, a bad father, a scary grandfather and a gazillion dollars.  “Poor Little Rich Girl” came along at exactly the right time, at the height of the 80s flashiness.  It made perfect sense at the time and still packs a kick, if only to gape at the reality of Barbara’s life, as delivered to us through ideally-cast Farrah Fawcett, who would die her own untimely death after much drama (though not as much as the Hutton dame).

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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